Dr. Will Brooker has published studies of comics and pop culture since his Batman Unmasked in 2001. In 2013, he launched the comic book My So-Called Secret Identity, which he writes. The series, illustrated by Suze Shore and Dr. Sarah Zaidan, has been widely embraced as a positive example of a female super-hero comic. Brooker has put his money where his mouth is, donating the comic’s profits to charity. I and others here at Sequart have tried to trumpet the series, literally since its launch. Brooker has also contributed to Sequart. We sat down to discuss the similarities between My So-Called Secret Identity and the new direction on DC’s monthly Batgirl, written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher, with art by Babs Tarr.
DARIUS: The idea that there might be similarities between My So-Called Secret Identity and the new Batgirl isn’t a new subject to me. For one thing, they’re both super-heroines (without super-powers) written in a feminist mode, which is a very rare thing in itself. Their stories are both also generally upbeat, in contrast to the dark super-hero stories that sometimes seem to dominate the market today. There are more specific aspects, which we can get into later.
I’ve also been reading the annotations of this new Batgirl that you and Sam LeBas have produced for Multiversity Comics. They’ve been fascinating, in great part because you and Sam are so intelligent and know your stuff. You’ve deftly tackled issues of representation in the series, and the two of you were particularly strong in your critical but kind discussion over the series’s depiction of a transgendered villain. To their credit, the series’s creators listened to this criticism, by you and others. But along the way, you and Sam have sometimes used My So-Called Secret Identity as a reference point, gently pointing out some of the similarities between your approach and the new Batgirl.
Artistic similarities can be a sensitive subject. So before we get into any of the specifics, perhaps we should clarify that you haven’t said that the new Batgirl stole from My So-Called Secret Identity, or anything of the sort. I’m not sure what kind of relationship you have with Stewart, Fletcher, and Tarr, but you seem to admire their work (as do I). It doesn’t seem like you’re criticizing them for any of these similarities. Did I get that right?
BROOKER: That’s right. I have met the creative team once, at the Thought Bubble convention, and I’ve had friendly exchange with them on Twitter, plus more extensive correspondence with Brenden. From what I know of them, I think they are great people. I think they have integrity as well as intelligence and talent. They’re very generous in their interaction with readers, and they’ve been very warm towards me. I also really admire, respect and enjoy their Batgirl.
It’s clear to any reader that despite some similarities, the Batgirl reboot is also very different from My So-Called Secret Identity. One of the major differences stems from the fact that I set my story in the period I associate with the greatest Vertigo comics, the early-to-mid 1990s. As such, there’s minimal internet, one mobile phone, no apps, no social media. Batgirl is all about social media, formally and thematically, and as such it’s very current, very 2015. Both stories are about finding yourself, discovering your identity, dealing with insecurity and trauma, across an arc of approximately the same length (5-6 issues of 22 pages) but there are multiple differences in the way those stories are told.
There are, I think, undeniable overlaps in tone, concept and detail, to the extent that people now approach me every time I give a talk, asking if I’ve seen the new Batgirl and whether I think DC ripped it off from me in some way. I think both start from a similar point, and what they do intersects to an extent. But I couldn’t have written that Batgirl arc. It is different to what I could have done. I think they have achieved something unique and special.
DARIUS: I have the same favorable impression of the Batgirl creative team, and I’ve been especially impressed with how they’ve handled controversies, listening to readers and openly acknowledging missteps. Do you happen to know if any of the current Batgirl creators have read My So-Called Secret Identity?
BROOKER: No. I would be very interested to know for sure if anyone at DC who had any connection with Batgirl had read or was acquainted with My So-Called Secret Identity, because clearly there seem to be echoes and it would be fascinating if that was pure coincidence and synchronicity. I’ve heard that DC has people who look for trends and identify patterns, and it would seem plausible that they could easily find my article from 2011 that ends “We are building a better Batgirl. Look out for her,” and follow it from there. But I genuinely don’t know.
Some of it, I think, is undeniably, unambiguously chance, despite the remarkable parallels. There are aspects of MSCSI, such as my early pitch about a “Batgirl and Oracle” storyline, following the first arc — with Oracle as Batgirl’s digital assistant — that I don’t believe ever circulated publicly [so no one at DC could have seen them].
When I read Batgirl #36 and saw the shopkeeper of a manga emporium Robot Pony wearing a pink rabbit head, I was startled as I’d written something very similar into the script for MSCSI volume 2 — a teen girl-gang member called Surprising Delight, with a Hello Kitty-style head mask. But I didn’t see theirs, and nobody saw mine. There’s also a comic from Absolution called Happy Kitty that echoes the same visual concept. Some ideas are just floating around waiting for people to grab them, and sometimes different people grab them at around the same time. For what it’s worth, you can see I was developing that idea myself in the two-page Stylist strip we published in Spring 2014, with the first appearance of that character: she’s got a Hello Kitty backpack instead of a full head mask.
So, every single example of possible crossover between MSCSI and Batgirl could be just like that.
DARIUS: Would it bother you if the current Batgirl creators explicitly said they’d taken inspiration from your comic?
BROOKER: No, I would be very flattered and gratified.
DARIUS: You described a process of inspiration and coincidence, sort of mixing in a creative flux. People sometimes think only in terms of borrowing. But sometimes two creators have a similar interpretation, especially when they’re both springboarding off of an existing trend, or what’s wrong with a character’s history, or a popular story. In fact, you’ve been open about the fact that My So-Called Secret Identity was inspired by Batgirl, to some extent. I knew the series had started, in part, with some observations about Barbara Gordon originally being a graduate student and observations that you had about women in graduate programs. But I don’t think I was aware that My So Called Secret Identity also stemmed from a 2011 Batgirl pitch that you made to DC. Was that an unsolicited pitch? What was the process there?
BROOKER: It was both an unsolicited and unsubmitted pitch. I started to develop it around the time I wrote the article “Killer Moth to Killing Joke” [linked above], a critical history of Batgirl, in Autumn 2011. The original idea was to put something together that would demonstrate how Batgirl could be done differently, and implicitly, better. I was planning simply to write a pitch, complete some sample pages of script, design a logo and commission a portfolio of artwork, and publish it online as a kind of thought experiment, to provoke debate and make people think — like an alternate universe, alternate-history, “what if we did Batgirl like this” concept. It was essentially Barbara Gordon finding out who she was by moving to a hip neighbourhood, sharing a house with people who were also secretly superheroes (Black Orchid, Shade the Changing Man), and hanging out in a kind of Greenwich Village milieu, with an aesthetic and feel that focused on wearable fashion, alternative music, relationships and identity.
As I continued to work on this, I realised it was actually an idea with real potential, and the artwork that was coming in from Jennifer Vaiano, Suze Shore and Clay Rodery was really exciting me and prompting me to see it as something more, something larger.
The whole point of my article and the alternate-Batgirl pitch was a response to the New 52, which at least at the time was very glossy, very teenage-boy, in my opinion, with a lot of covers and interior art featuring women like Supergirl, Catwoman and Starfire in skimpy outfits and sexualised, soft porn poses.
So submitting this unsolicited idea to DC at the time didn’t seem right, to be honest. It was a reaction against what DC was doing. It wouldn’t have fit their direction in Autumn 2011 at all. It was implicitly saying, “this is what you’re doing wrong and here’s how you could be doing something different (better).” More specifically, Gail Simone was writing Batgirl, and I think doing a great job of it. I don’t like most of what the New 52 was about in 2011 but I have a lot of respect and admiration for Gail and her work, and Babs is really her character more than anyone else’s. She was back on Batgirl and she was the best person to handle that, after years of writing Oracle and obviously caring about Babs a great deal. Having said that, it was also clear even to a reader that Gail was having to negotiate a lot of push and pull within the company. Her Batgirl was obliged to take part in Batman crossovers that I feel compromised and interrupted the storyline, and you’ll remember she was even taken off the title, then hurriedly reinstated.
For all manner of reasons, then, I didn’t think I would get very far with submitting this pitch to DC, three and a half years ago.
As such, I had to consider whether I was going to just continue to treat this as an experiment, a hypothetical portfolio for a comic — which I imagine would be fair use in copyright — or approach the owners of that copyright with the idea, or change direction and develop it as something distinct. I made a deliberate decision, at a specific point — it really was a decision I made in a moment, after considering the options for a few days — and went back to the pitch document and started to rework it.
In making changes to various details about the city, the costumes, the characters and so on, inevitably one thing led to another and the whole pitch altered. If you move a story out of an established universe, you have to develop a new universe. You have to develop a new fictional history and politics, and an understanding of how powers work in this world, and the role costumed heroes occupy. It’s not just a question of filing off the serial numbers. In that process, I gained a lot of freedom in terms of saying something distinct about celebrity and culture, and various aspects took shape that wouldn’t have if this remained a DC pitch: for instance, Cat’s helmet, which I based on the Beano character Katie (cousin of Billy the Cat), was now part of her policeman father’s uniform, and her logo became the Urbanite’s stencilled sign, flipped over and adapted. The original pitch was for a story called “My So-Called Lives,” and that evolved into “My So-Called Secret Identity.” So in many ways, moving outside of an established universe forced me to come up with a lot of ideas, which ultimately enhanced the story and its world.
DARIUS: The most recent issue of My So-Called Secret Identity, issue #5 (which wraps up book one), has a cover that’s an homage to Batman: The Killing Joke. We’ve talked a lot about The Killing Joke lately, due to the recent Batgirl variant cover fiasco. It’s a polarizing work, and it’s certainly colored Barbara Gordon’s history. I feel like a lot of Batgirl’s subsequent development has been an attempt to undo or redeem that story, in one way or another, in some very tangled ways. In fact, the new Batgirl has done so too, as you and Sam LeBas have addressed in your annotations.
Personally, I think MSCSI #5 is my favorite issue so far, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s your own attempt to show a healthier alternative to the gore that was inflicted on Barbara Gordon — to address the idea of trauma inflicted upon a super-heroine but do so in a less voyeuristic way that also keeps her own story and humanity at center focus.
Put another way, we’ve talked about how Batgirl’s history helped inspire Cat’s creation. But did Batgirl’s history, including potentially its missteps, also help inspire the overall shape of the narrative of Cat’s story?
BROOKER: Yes, MSCSI #5 was meant to be, in part, an anti-Killing Joke, or an alternative Killing Joke. The sequence with Cat opening the door to Carnival, which ends issue 4 on a cliffhanger, is a deliberate echo of Babs opening the door to Joker. From there, we go in a different direction, and the storytelling in issue 5 is shaped by the fact that Cat’s in a hospital bed on morphine, and the news, in her universe, that they’ve confirmed the existence of alternate earths. So her mind is wandering, and we see visions that we can’t entirely trust as “true”: her father visits her, Dahlia reveals her secret, and Cat imagines a version of events where she responded quickly enough to shove Carnival’s nose back into his brain with the flat of her hand. I thought that was a cathartic and important image, as really — I’ve always felt — Batgirl opening the door to Joker should have resulted in her disarming him and forcing him into submission within the two panels before he fires. She’s Batgirl!
Although we understand that that specific image is only Cat’s fantasy, the chapter focuses on her survival and resolve, and the fact that Carnival failed to beat her. He thought she lived in her face and in her looks, as a ‘pretty girl’ — he didn’t realise she lives inside her head, somewhere he can’t touch. By the end of the story, she’s back and she’s turned the tables.
So yes, structurally MSCSI is a response to various patterns I’m uncomfortable with in the Batman mythos, including the dependent relationship between Batman and Joker and the fact that they need each other and so continue to sustain each other, and specifically the collateral damage to people like Barbara.
DARIUS: Maybe we could talk about a few specifics. Both My So-Called Secret Identity and the new Batgirl have the heroines move to a hip neighborhood. I like the idea, I think because it kind of gets into what’s fashionable without being overt or sexist about it. Also, it’s not something we’ve really seen before, at least not in any way that a hip, trendy setting feels important to the story and its tone. Usually, we just get uber-rich Bruce Wayne penthouses, or dirty alleyways, or working-class houses, but we seem to skip that hipster / bohemian upper middle-class vibe, including some ethnic diversity. What inspired this in your pitch and the resulting comic? What does it add to the story, and does it work similarly in Batgirl?
BROOKER: I was thinking in part about what I enjoyed in the Vertigo comics of the early 1990s, and partly about my own life at the time, when I was around the same age as the characters. One of the main inspirations was the shared house that we tour around at the opening of Sandman: A Game of You, with various diverse characters who all have their own secrets and stories. There’s a similar situation in the earlier Doll’s House arc, where Barbie, the main character in A Game of You, is first introduced. And this was, give or take some stylisation and fantasy, the kind of house I shared while I was reading those comics. That is, minus the superpowers, the kind of life I lived: a life of part-time work, walking around the city, hanging out with interesting people, buying vinyl and seeing bands, shopping for vintage clothes, experimenting with styles. A little later, I lived around 116th Street in New York while I was researching my PhD at DC Comics, and some of that experience also fed into MSCSI — Gloria University is like I remember Columbia University, and there are scenes of street basketball games, independent cinemas, beatnik shirts and bagels, based on that neighborhood and Greenwich Village. So I wanted to capture that sense of openness, freshness, possibility and exploring. Almost the vibe from the cover of Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album.
So in a way I was writing a 1990s scene that felt a little bit 1960s, and maybe the cycle’s come around, because the Burnside scene in Batgirl, set in 2015, has a similar feel. To me, having seen that kind of Beat culture when it was revived the first time, Burnside feels a little pretentious and try-hard hipster, like Hoxton in London, but I think that may be partly intentional from the writers, and it’s just a sign of my jaded, aged attitudes anyway. Again, I think it gives Babs’ new adventures a sense of fresh possibility, and of course it also allows the creators to bring in their own settings, stores, brands, supporting cast and guest villains, rather than being tied to Gotham’s geography and rogues’ gallery. It also gives them the opportunity to include a more diverse cast, I think, and they’ve really embraced that: the most obvious example might be Frankie, a bisexual woman of color with a disability who looks as if she’s going to take on the role of Oracle, but there’s a range of characters of various ethnicities and sexualities in the book so far, which I think is refreshing and also, importantly, realistic.
DARIUS: You mentioned gloria University. Another element in both comics is that both Cat and Babs are grad students, and we see them at school, including each of them dealing with an older male professor. I know that Barbara Gordon was originally a graduate student. You riffed on that history in creating Cat, right? Could you expand on how graduate school works in your story and in the new Batgirl?
BROOKER: Yes, the original prompt behind MSCSI was a panel on the first page of Barbara Gordon’s first story, which confirms that she has a PhD — coupled with the fact that I was leading PhD induction sessions for new, mostly-female doctoral students, and the other fact that no women in the New 52 seemed to look or act anything like the women I was supervising. So Cat was, among other inspirations like Claire Danes and Molly Ringwald, based partly on students I knew — and still know — at Kingston University. One was a redheaded history PhD called Claire, who is now very nearly a doctor, and the other was an undergrad, now a graduate, actually called Babs.
Funnily enough, I think I encountered the same issue in MSCSI as the team did in Batgirl, which is that when a graduate student becomes a costumed hero, there’s less time for study. Babs basically neglected — and literally lost — her research soon after beginning her enrolment at Burnside College, and we haven’t seen much of her in an academic environment apart from being called in for an emergency meeting by her supervisor.
In MSCSI, Cat’s treatment by her supervisor in the first issue is the catalyst for her to reclaim her “secret power,” her intelligence, and admit to herself, before announcing to the world, that she actually is something special. She also returns regularly to the university library, and that sparks key points in her research and understanding of the city’s superhero dynamics. But as she becomes engaged in the challenges of who Urbanite really is, what role Sekhmet plays, and how to stop Carnival, it would be fair to say she doesn’t do any of the academic research she should be working on. She neglects her actual studies. Perhaps this is a problem superheroes have always had, at least since Peter Parker. In volume 2 we do return to the supervisor and he plays a central role — I was really hoping Batgirl wouldn’t do this with Babs’ professor Krupke, and fortunately it didn’t — but it’s inevitable I think that becoming a costumed icon, even on a local, community level, gives you responsibilities and places expectations on you that drag you away from your previous life.
Having said that, in volume 2 we also meet some of the faculty at Gloria University, who are mentioned in the Issue 1 MindMap and in Dahlia’s conversations with Cat — Lance Oakes, Robert Wood, Nancy Colum and C. Leigh Harrington. They’re all former costumed heroes, and bear a resemblance to characters from the mainstream comic book universe. Volume 2 opens out the scope and deals with superhero tropes more broadly. Ultimately it becomes a comic about women in comics, in a very meta way that I hope won’t be too challenging and alienating (in the Brechtian sense).
DARIUS: I’ve always liked homemade super-hero costumes. The super-hero movie loses me when the poor kid home-stitches a costume that’s clearly a product of multi-million-dollar Hollywood engineering. In MSCSI, you and your collaborators were keen to maintain this aesthetic, and the new Batgirl has a somewhat similar focus. Both even have a scene in which the heroine use a cut-out or stencil to detail her uniform. Usually, stripped-down costumes are associated with revisionism, or realistic super-heroes, like Watchmen or Batman: Year One. But both MSCSI and Batgirl seem to recast this idea as more of a homemade arts aesthetic. It’s more of a hipster arts thing than a grim “this is real!” expression. Am I right to say that?
BROOKER: Again, there were various inspirations behind the logo. I’d been thinking about Batman: No Man’s Land, with its motifs of graffiti, which were later picked up in the viral marketing for Dark Knight Rises, with the chalk-marks of the Batman logo signalling his return. My original pitch had a graffiti style Batgirl logo, in dripping yellow paint. The idea was a DIY aesthetic in keeping with that young, hip, slightly bohemian concept of local bands, fashion students and stylistic experiment. If Babs was a PhD student, then believe me, she was not going to be financially loaded. So she would, it seemed to me, put together an outfit from items she owned and could afford, which had the additional benefit of making it practical and escaping the cliche of the tight, revealing, spandex costume for female characters. The first designs by Jennifer Vaiano and Suze Shore had our Batgirl wearing a kind of balaclava cowl, a ribbed roll-neck black sweater, a rucksack and cargo pants, with big boots. It’s sensible, it’s engaging, it’s an alternative to familiar sexist tropes, and at the time, in 2011, this was an original idea! The underlying concept was ‘how would you make your own outfit on a budget?’ It’s real, sure, but not the grim-and-gritty kind of “real.”
In fact, when I was a PhD student, and in one of my stir-crazy phases from being surrounded by Batman texts and memorabilia in little rooms all day, I did fashion my own costume, including a transfer of the logo from Batman & Robin onto a tight grey ribbed T-shirt. With hindsight, that sounds more like something you might wear to a certain type of club than an outfit for urban vigilantism.
DARIUS: I didn’t know that, but that’s awesome. Was the idea to put yourself in Batman’s head, to prepare for a war on crime, or just to see how this would look and feel?
BROOKER: The idea was to wage war on street crime in Cardiff, which is a small enough city for one person to police. The Batman of Cardiff is, I think, a figure they haven’t yet included in Batman Incorporated. Perhaps I should pitch it. He would have a much easier job than the Batman of Africa.
DARIUS: I don’t want to leave the artwork out from our discussion. MSCSI and Batgirl both use some novel devices to depict their heroine’s processing of information. Of course, there’s also the emphasis on style, on fashion, and even on music, and this stuff gets integrated into the conventional panels in some novel ways. I also think that, because both stories are bright and bucking the dark super-hero trend, the art reflects this, visually communicating that we’re not in the uber-dark world of, say, Batman. That’s been done before with Batgirl, of course, especially with stuff like Batgirl: Year One, but it’s definitely at odds with most of the New 52.
BROOKER: The artwork for MSCSI was explicitly meant to be different from the New 52. The idea was that people — especially people new to comics, and especially women and girls — might look at it and think it looked distinct from the mainstream, and give it a chance. I think the visual style of the dominant mainstream at the time was particularly off-putting, despite its supposed aim to bring in new readers.
So my inspirations, and the guide images I gave to the artists, were Tim Sale’s work on Daredevil Yellow and Superman for All Seasons, with their watercolour look that almost recalls the Saturday Morning Post for me. There were more surprising images in the mix, too, like frames from West Side Story, the various covers for Catcher in the Rye and, coincidentally, a book for young adults called It’s Like This, Cat. Overall, again, there was a sense of nostalgia about the aesthetic I wanted to convey: something a little 1960s in feel. I wanted a sense of illustration, rather than comic book art, and I think Suze and Sarah captured it brilliantly, especially in the scenes where Cat is just wandering the city.
Significantly, there’s one scene in MSCSI where I did ask them to give it a New 52 feel, and that’s the sequence in issue 2 where Urbanite bullies Cat — I wanted more digital effects, more glow, afterimages, smoke and reflection. That style literally sweeps in and knocks her off her feet, and dominates the next page.
For that sequence, I gave them the cover of Action #1 from the New 52, so it was a very deliberate choice.
DARIUS: You mentioned the Urbanite, which is kind of MSCSI’s version of Batman. He’s a sort of dark, armored vigilante of a super-hero — a version of Batman that borrows from Judge Dredd and other tough, arguably quasi-fascist characters. There too, there’s a similarity, because the new Batgirl has this dark, robotic version of Batman.
BROOKER: Well, the new Batman has this dark, robotic version of Batman — and, like Urbanite, it seems nobody knows who he is inside the suit. The cover for Batgirl #41, with this towering RoboCop type figure targeting Babs, with red glowing lights and a shorthand command of “ELIMINATE,” reminds me immediately of those specific scenes in MSCSI where Cat is overpowered by Urbanite. The dynamic and the visuals seem very similar.
On the other hand, Urbanite began as a hybrid parody of Vader, RoboCop, Dredd and Batman — though he developed into quite a rounded character I think, almost sympathetic or at least pathetic — so I’m not sure if an ideas thief like me could legitimately claim that my ideas have been stolen. The French theorist Roland Barthes, you will remember, announced that the author was dead and that any new work simply compiles, edits and stitches together things that have already been said. It seems that to an extent DC is currently stitching things together in the same way I did, from similar material. If anyone at DC was influenced by my ideas, that’s flattering. If not, it’s a very interesting extended pattern and parallel. Anyway, I’m grateful to them for providing me with decades of stories and characters, for letting me use some of that material in an adapted form without giving me a cease and desist, and I hope they like the way I put those pieces together.
DARIUS: Continuing the subject of the artwork, I’m struck by how texture is such an important concern, not only in fashion (and how we craft and present our identities) but also in hipster culture. When I watch a Wes Anderson movie, my eyes are intoxicated by all the texture, yet I feel a weird kind of sensory overloaded, almost like I’ve got phantom limbs that are feeling all of these fabrics and surfaces I’m looking at. Without going as far as all that, it does seem to me that both comics have a certain focus on textures, not only in their homemade costumes but in these visual breaks from the conventional comics form.
I also think that texture is a gendered concern. In general, women seem more sensitive to texture than men. I know a lot of men who think a shirt’s a shirt and a jacket’s a jacket. Most men might notice color or pattern, but the idea that texture goes beyond hard or soft seems kind of foreign to them. To even care about texture feels culturally coded as somehow unmanly. Hipster culture’s kind of changing this, but I like the idea of creating a female-friendly comic that’s concerned with texture.
This may just be my own strange preoccupation, but I wonder if the idea of texture is something you’ve thought about, or that you see operating in MSCSI or the new Batgirl.
BROOKER: Very much so. I’ve given a few talks about MSCSI and there are slides that are just captioned “a sense of textiles… a sense of texture… a sense of tactility.” One key aspect Sarah Zaidan provided was that feeling of collage, which was integral to the MindMaps in particular. I especially like the fact that we have Cat wearing a blue dress to her PhD tutorial, and then we have a swatch of that dress on the MindMap, as something she’s considering as her outfit for the day.
Sarah also did some wonderful work on the Community page of the website, where I asked her to take us into Cat’s space. She chose a cubist approach to the perspective, but you can still experience — I say experience because like you, I do think we can almost feel it, not just see it — the pattern on her bedcovers, the cardboard donut box, the covers of books, the folds of the shirt she’s wearing in issue #2.
I really enjoy the fact that we see these things in the comic itself, as flatter space, and then we’re brought closer to them on this page, as if they actually exist as things for us to touch. It’s also a nice irony that this page features a prototype Cat logo t-shirt, which now actually exists in real life, and which a lot of our fans have bought and wear.
I think MSCSI also tries to convey a sense of scent and taste, more than most superhero comics. We see Cat eating, more than we usually see superheroines eating. That was deliberate. And there’s a reference to what Urbanite smells like, though it’s also a bit of a Frank Miller pastiche (“THE SMELL OF LEATHER AND DRY ICE”). I wanted to involve other senses, as well as just visuals. I wanted, with MSCSI, to suggest a whole world and experience.
Maris Wicks in particular has done wonderful work as colorist on Batgirl in this respect, and in annotating the reboot with Sam LeBas, we’ve spent a lot of time focusing in close-up on the textures of, for instance, Nadimah’s scarves, and the brushwork. It’s a great pleasure to examine and it has a really hand-crafted feel — again, far more like what we were aiming for in MSCSI than, for instance, Action #1.
DARIUS: We’ve talked about a lot of similarities between My So-Called Secret Identity and the new Batgirl. Creators seem to live in fear both of having their ideas stolen or being accused of the same. Instead, you’ve said that you’d be flattered if Batgirl borrowed from your comic, and you seem to find room in these similarities for coincidence, a kind of healthy mutual inspiration, and even synchronicity.
It occurs to me that there are lots of cases where we acknowledge these kinds of similarities, and we just hope that whoever was first gets some appropriate credit in the historical record. For example, people often point out that Battle Royale preceded Hunger Games. The same culture of originality places emphasis on what came first. And it does seem like you anticipated how at least how one successful new direction for Batgirl might work, in a way that was in tune with the times.
Do you think this is a fair assessment? And do you feel like the success of the new Batgirl is a vindication of sorts? Is it proof that your original pitch would have worked for Batgirl, had DC been in a different place, in terms of its offerings and culture? Put another way, do you feel like the success of the new Batgirl proves MSCSI was ahead of the curve?
BROOKER: There are lots of examples from cinema of the same idea appearing around the same time: Antz and A Bug’s Life, Deep Impact and Armageddon, The Prestige and The Illusionist, Dante’s Peak and Volcano. In some cases, as with Dark City and The Matrix, two very similar movies were released in fairly close succession, one made it big, and the other became more of a cult hit that some people claim has been overshadowed by or even copied by the better-known example. In this case, chronologically, there’s little debate that MSCSI was released first, in Spring 2013, with the first articles discussing my new approach going online in October 2011.
That’s fortunate for me, because if MSCSI came out now, it would simply look like a rip-off of the new Batgirl, rather than a reinterpretation, through analogy, of the Bat-mythos in a Vertigo mode, which was the original intention.
As I’ve said, I can have no way of knowing if MSCSI reached anyone at DC, though it was featured in national or international publications like Ms Magazine, The Guardian, Stylist and Times Higher Education during 2013 and 2014, so it’s not really off the mainstream radar. I do admire the new Batgirl as a project that does something quite distinct from what seems a similar starting concept.
I wouldn’t say it feels like vindication to see those changes at DC, as I really don’t know the process behind what happened. It does suggest that I came up with an idea for Batgirl that would have probably hit the mark with the new editors in 2014, again in its concept, tone and aesthetic, and some of its specifics, rather than in every detail (such as the 1990s setting and lack of social media). At the very least, it means there’s a new issue of Batgirl every month that I can thoroughly enjoy, and enjoy analysing and annotating; and though it seems I managed to predict most of their plot beats several months in advance, the team does continue to surprise and satisfy me with what they’re putting out. I’m also really looking forward to the new Black Canary, which I think wouldn’t have existed without the Batgirl reboot.
DARIUS: I want to circle back to how My So-Called Secret Identity was a reaction against the New 52, or at least evolved into that.
Personally, I feel like your characterization of the New 52 is, if anything, generous. It’s important for readers to remember that this was a reboot of the entire DC Universe, designed to be accessible to new readers. At the time, DC made sounds about being more diverse, and how several titles would feature women and minorities (though they were not necessarily created by women or minorities). Yet the New 52 had several problems in its depictions of women. For me, Starfire was the epitome, but I also strongly remember a Catwoman cover with her literally dripping pearls over her reclining face and breasts. You didn’t have to look hard to see what was really being sold, and its commonplace nature made it seem less like a pardonable oddity and more like a crass publishing agenda. I don’t know that this was the intent, but it’s certainly how the New 52 came off. It sure didn’t look like it wasn’t crafted with much thought given to how half the population might see it.
I think it’s also important to mention that the problem wasn’t simply sexploitative content, at least for me. It was crudely sexploitative content inserted into otherwise pretty standard, even unremarkable super-hero fare. It’s a lot easier to defend Milo Manara, or Steve Moore and Art Adams’ “Jonni Future,” for their obvious artistic merits. Those examples are of works created as sexually playful and for more mature audiences. Yet in the New 52, a high-profile relaunch ostensibly intended for a diverse new audience, sexual images and poses were just kind of inserted into these super-hero titles, in ways that didn’t make sense for the characters or for the story. I think it’s an important distinction — especially because feminist critics are sometimes (often wrongly) smeared as prudes.
At the same time, I really felt at the time — and still feel — like that was a watershed moment. Probably because the New 52 was so extreme in these depictions, a lot of brave critics started raising their voices. Kelly Thompson’s 2012 “No, It’s Not Equal” should be regarded as one of the single most important essays in the history of comics criticism. Of course, she and others who spoke up — for whom these issues were nothing new — got an unrelenting deluge of hatred and threats in response. And of course, this treatment was nothing new for women in comics criticism, or for women in geek culture criticism (as “GamerGate” would soon show the world), or even for women online more generally. But the treatment of these very thoughtful and passionate critics, most of whom were so careful in their language to offend male fanboys as little as possible, further helped the issue reach critical mass. Beforehand, everyone knew about feminist criticisms of super-hero comics, but they were rarely a part of mainstream coverage of comics. I feel like that kind of criticism really became mainstream, during and in the wake of the New 52, and I don’t think that’s changed since.
I hope that’s permanent, and that we make female and feminist perspectives as welcome in comics as any other. That’s part of our maturing as a medium, or should be.
So when you talk about how My So-Called Secret Identity was in part a response to the New 52, it’s something I strongly identify with. There was so much frustration. We had this moment of kind of horrible comics, great and hopeful dialogue, and horrible backlash against that dialogue. Yet this dialogue didn’t change the comics themselves very much, at least initially. So I felt that what you were doing with My So-Called Secret Identity was basically making the kind of comic you wanted to read, a super-hero comic that was friendly to female readers.
Since then, there’s been something of a flourishing of female-friendly titles, such as Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Lumberjanes, and Bitch Planet. I think you were ahead of the curve there.
I’m not sure if your recollection of that period matches mine. Or whether you feel like you were ahead of the curve more generally, when it comes to setting an example of more diverse, female-friendly comics.
BROOKER: I vividly remember your criticism of that Catwoman cover at the time, and the way you identified the dripping pearls as a thinly disguised, soft-porn “money shot.” This must have been around the same time as I went into my local comic store on a break from introducing the new female PhD students to the program, was faced with an array of glossy New 52 covers that looked like top-shelf men’s magazines and a bunch of surly young guys running the store, and went back to class without buying anything. So yes, I think we had similar experiences.
I agree that there’s been a backlash of a sort, and that there have been some changes, but personally I’d want to wait to see how permanent those changes are, and how deep they go. I’d want to see what happens with the new female Thor, for instance, and how Wonder Woman works out in the new Dawn of Justice movie. I’m not an expert on Wonder Woman, Lois Lane or Poison Ivy, but I know there are a lot of fans, many of them female, who feel those characters have been done a disservice in recent titles.
In terms of representation and diversity, I’m not entirely convinced that confirming Catwoman as canonically bisexual, for instance, is necessarily a progressive move — it depends on how it’s handled. Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn’s flirtatious friendship has often, it seems to me, been more about appealing to heterosexual guys. Constantine’s bisexuality is very important to some fans, but it was marginalised in the TV adaptation. Batwoman wasn’t allowed a same-sex marriage, and her title was cancelled. Innovative books like Gotham Academy, which, like Batgirl, include a culturally diverse cast, are also at risk of folding without a pick-up in sales. DC gets global publicity from announcing that a high-profile character will come out as gay, and then we learn it’s the Earth-2 Green Lantern; a positive change, sure, but it’s very much on the sidelines. So I remain cautious. I think things have improved, in the way you suggest, but let’s see how it pans out. I’m very glad that we can now name more women in the comics industry, but that fact that Gail Simone remains journalists’ go-to contact about what it’s like to be a woman in comics suggests that there aren’t that many others. The fact that she’s always asked that question, still, suggests that women in comics are still an exception.
I think MSCSI was on that curve, and it’s going to stay on that curve, and go further on that curve, because we’re in a position where we can do that.
DARIUS: You’ve sure heard the announcement, this month, that the New 52 is ending, as a branding device, and that DC is interested in going in a more diverse direction. This could be read as DC trying to fulfill its promise that the New 52 would be friendly to diverse readers, which I think it’s fair to say the New 52 did not accomplish. As part of DC’s announcement, it plans to dedicate half its line to more experimental titles, or at least characters, concepts, and creators that aren’t the big franchise super-heroes.
If I’m getting that right, based on what you’ve read, do you feel like this is a vindication of your approach? Because it does feel like My So-Called Secret Identity wouldn’t have fit in the New 52, but DC seems to be embracing a lot of what made MSCSI different.
BROOKER: Again, it’s hard to feel it’s a vindication because I don’t know if it’s pure coincidence. It would be possible to trace the forthcoming change at DC back through Batgirl to MSCSI, but I don’t know if that’s entirely far-fetched.
DARIUS: I know you did some consulting for Samsung. I’m not sure exactly what that consisted of. Just out of curiosity, would you ever be interested in an editor’s position, if it meant being able to supervise comics that reflected your concern for diversity?
BROOKER: I’m asked to do a fair amount of consultation for journalists and corporations, as a professor of cultural studies. I provided the promotional copy for a Samsung launch a few years ago, and last month they teamed me with a digital artist on a project to predict how cultural icons of classical Hollywood would look in 2015 — almost a combination of my Batman research with the new Batgirl, as essentially it was about drawing a prediction from past patterns into the future, and establishing what type of hipster or celebrity James Dean and Marilyn Monroe would be now. I’ve advised the BBC, worked for ITV as a film expert, and so on. I also had a couple of features on io9 at the time of The Dark Knight, where I tried to both predict the film from the comic books it was based on, and project ideas for the future of the Bat-franchise. I looked back at those this week and they were really pretty accurate. One of my ideas was very much like Gotham (and Gotham Academy) and another resembled the Bat-Affleck character in the forthcoming movie. So I think my training of cultural history and recognising and extrapolating patterns in popular culture has given me some unique insights.
I don’t know if I would want to edit; I would certainly be happy to consult for comic companies on a more official and recognised basis. And I still want to write — fiction, that is, as well as my academic books. I have two more books of MSCSI that I want to publish independently, as they involve quite challenging ideas and I want to retain their integrity in that respect, but I’m also developing two more commercial pitches and this time I’m planning to actually put them in front of a publisher.
DARIUS: Thanks for doing this interview — and for putting up with my many lengthy questions! Readers can visit the My So-Called Secret Identity on website here.